Manchester United flex off-field muscles

Club expands commercial operations despite recession and protests against owners
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The Independent Football

Manchester United are only "taking baby steps" with their new commercial strategy despite managing to unveil three major deals in a week. For all the anti-Glazer rhetoric and the immense visual impact the green and gold campaign is having around United, perhaps it is being ignored that at a time of worldwide economic strife, the Old Trafford outfit is raking in cash like never before.

Critics may argue a vast portion of this is coming through steep ticket price increases, but on the commercial side, the numbers are definitely adding up. Instead of securing sweeping sponsorship contracts, which tends to be the footballing tradition, a more regionalised approach has been implemented.

It allowed United to cement a deal to give Telekom Malaysia exclusive on-line content rights in Malaysia, and another for mobile content rights to MTN in South Africa. In between, on a broader scale, the ambitious Turkish Airlines became United's airline partner and will ferry them to and from European matches, plus their regular pre-season tours, which this year is likely to have them heading for the USA in July.

Each of these seven-figure contracts have helped swell the cash generated by United's commercial department to £69.9m, a 65.25 per cent increase on 2005, when the Glazer family completed their controversial takeover.

"In some ways, the strategy that has been conceived has been three years in the making," said United commercial director Richard Arnold. "In the last six to nine months we have really seen the results of that. But when you look at the work that has been done, the opportunities we still have and the areas where we can be so much better than we are already, really, we are only taking the baby steps in terms of what we can do. We have huge potential to do better things."

Some of the numbers are mind-boggling. United's estimation of having 333m fans is impossible to verify. Not so the 10m unique visitors to the official website per month, or those million United credit cards in South Korea.

What about 500,000 subscribers to a mobile phone service in Saudi Arabia within two weeks of the number launching, or a total of 3.8bn page impressions in two weeks for a web campaign with Nike in China? How about a tenfold increase in web traffic for Kumho Tires since they became an official sponsor? Or the fact that there are twice as many viewers worldwide for United matches than for the entire Formula One season?

Outgoing shirt sponsors AIG were catapulted into the Business Week top-100 brand list at number 47, with the United sponsorship cited as the reason. Their new sponsor, £20m-a-year American insurance giant Aon, will hope for a similar impact when their names go on United's shirts from the start of next season. "I have been with the club three years and during that entire period it has been an economic downturn," said Arnold. "But we are in a very fortunate position in terms of the strength of the Manchester United identity.

"It means we can still partner with the strongest or number one brand in their field, or people who have the ambition and vision to achieve it. Sponsorship is a very important part of what we do.

"It is pivotal to making sure we have a genuinely international ability to bring the relationship with United to life for so many people right across the world. Our family of fans starts with the lifelong Stretford Ender and extends to the five-year-old in South Africa."

Arnold is reluctant to confirm exactly who brought forward this idea of United taking a territorial stance to their commercial operation. Yet he is willing to credit the Glazers with changing a mindset at Old Trafford, and in the London-based commercial satellite they have set up.

"A lot of the ideas we now use came from the owners," he said. "They set a standard of excellence off the pitch that is consistent with the standard Sir Alex sets on it. They are willing to explore new things. They give us freedom and investment to try different ways of doing things. That has generated the results we are now seeing."

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